Notre Dame Football: Irish's Biggest Strengths and Weaknesses Prior to Fall Camp
As the dog days of summer wind to their bitter end, the intensity of fall camp begins brewing.
The month-long practice period, full of two-a-days and grueling drills in the scorching late summer heat, is a formative time for any program, as the identity of the team begins to take shape.
Strengths are honed, while weaknesses are identified and given strict attention.
For the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, the commencement of fall camp signals the sequel of the program's appearance in last season's BCS National Championship Game, with a return to that hallowed ground an undeniable goal in the minds of the players and coaches alike.
What are the strengths that would allow the Irish to enjoy another undefeated season?
What are the weaknesses that could hinder that dream?
One specific position group immediately stands out.
Strength: First-String Defensive Line
A simple truth regarding the 3-4 defensive scheme is that it's only as strong as its defensive line.
Notre Dame is on the positive end of that truth. The Irish possess what has been labeled by Phil Steele's college football preview magazine as the nation's best defensive line.
The action begins with nose guard Louis Nix III, a 6'3", 340-pound behemoth, who is the ideal fit at the position in a 3-4 scheme. Paired with defensive end Stephon Tuitt, the Irish lay claim to the only duo of defensive linemen pegged as first-round selections in the 2014 NFL draft.
Rounding out the first string along with Nix III and Tuitt is defensive end Sheldon Day, who finished fourth on the team in sacks last season with two.
Weakness: Quarterback Depth
2013 was destined to be a season of blossoming for incumbent starting quarterback Everett Golson.
Those plans were derailed by his own mistakes. The Myrtle Beach, South Carolina native was dismissed from the university for what was termed "poor academic judgement" (h/t ESPN.com).
Combined with Gunner Kiel's decision to transfer to Cincinnati, the Irish were left with just three scholarship quarterbacks remaining on the depth chart in Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and true freshman Malik Zaire.
Some may say that Notre Dame does in fact have depth at quarterback, though anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to the program in recent seasons understands that's not the case. Despite his dual-threat ability, Hendrix's game log is staggeringly thin. Head coach Brian Kelly has chosen to keep him on the bench for the majority of his career.
That leaves just Zaire, who enrolled for the spring semester but has yet to play a single down at the college level.
Should Rees, who was named by Kelly as the Irish's starter, suffer an injury, be suspended, etc., the Irish would be left with two rather unsavory options.
Strength: A Fortified Secondary
One year ago at this time, a flurry of questions surrounded Notre Dame's secondary. The unit was thin on experience and appeared to be a glaring weakness of an otherwise strong defense.
As the season progressed, pressure was alleviated on the unit by the Irish's ferocious front seven.
By season's end, the secondary had finished 16th nationally in passing efficiency defense.
Returning from that stellar unit are strong safety Matthias Farley and cornerbacks Bennett Jackson and KeiVarae Russell. The trio will be aided by the services of either Elijah Shumate, Nick Baratti or true freshman Max Redfield at free safety, as well as the return of cornerback Lo Wood.
Weakness: Lack of Experience at Running Back
While some may see the running back position as a strength due to the profound amount of quality depth, it's a position thin on experience.
George Atkinson III is the Irish's leading returning rusher, having amassed 361 yards on 51 carries to go along with five touchdowns last season. Joining Atkinson III is junior Cam McDaniel, redshirt freshman William Mahone, junior Amir Carlisle and freshmen Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston.
Questions still remain as to how Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin will distribute carries. If last season's system is any indication, a committee approach is the likely course of action.
If the amount of raw talent existing within the ranks can combat its lack of experience effectively, this unit may just become a strength.
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